There aren’t any trams in Seoul since fifty years, but it doesn’t mean that Korea completely abandoned the idea of trams. Actually, Korea currently works on the development of new tram systems. In 2012 the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs decided to focus on one special kind of tram (via KBS):
The government has designated bimodal trams and magnet-embedded tracks as new transportation technologies.
Bimodal trams are built by applying railway technologies into buses. Bimodal trams are a new type of transportation that boasts the flexibility of buses and periodicity of trains. The trams are controlled electronically, provide a smoother ride for passengers, and can be automatically operated on dedicated tracks with magnets embedded in them.
The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs explained that such technologies are eco-friendly systems that could be used to replace light rail vehicles.
It’s great that South Koreal pursues development into this particular direction. There are some points which I would like to discuss: Bimodal trams, magnet-embedded tracks, replacement of light rail. We’ll start with the last one point.
Why Should We Abandon Light Rail Transit Systems?
Light rail systems have a renaissance in urban transport planning and many transport planners would love to build light rail systems. Modern systems are often automated (driver-less). In the last years some light rail systems were realized in South Korea, usually as elevated railways. Although LRTs are cheaper than heavy metro rail systems, they have strong impacts on the built environment. One famous example is the Busan-Gimhae light rail transit. This project shows you well what the main problem of LRT above the ground is: elevated construction.
The pictures are from 2010 before the official opening of the line! It would’ve been much more sustainable to build it on street-level and and less damaging to the urban landscape. That’s exactly, what the last sentence in the article expresses indirectly: construction of enormous cement pillars and elevated rail ways, the uncomfortable way up into the station and many more things are not very eco-friendly and sustainable. Thus, bimodal trams could play a leading role. because they are on street-level.
What is a bimodal tram?
The name might be a little bit misleading but this vehicle is a bus because it has rubber tires. It is called a tram comes because the vehicle is led by magnets and thus it matches principle of rail vehicles. The vehicle has a top speed of 80 km/h and it is completely electric. As far as I know, such vehicles already operate in Sejong City and they operated during the expo in Yeosu. I even took a picture of the vehicle in Yeosu:
Maybe they even installed magnets there because you can see a green mat at the station. By far, the most interesting thing is that it doesn’t drive on rails. One more important thing is that the invention comes from Netherlands. There it’s called “Phileas” and originally, the intention was to create a driver-less car. As far a I now, the city of Eindhoven uses this system but they abandoned the usage of the magnets.
Korea seems to wish to implement the magnetic guidance (still with a driver present) and so, we should take a look how it works.
Magnets instead of rails
Along the route of the bus, there are magnets embedded in the streets, which seems to be able to lead the vehicle automatically. The magnets are 3 cm long and 1.5 cm thick, 10 cm under the surface and magnets are installed in a distance of 4 to 5 m. You can see it in the picture on the left. If there is a obstacle on the route, the driver of the bimodal tram can manually navigate around the obstacle. Otherwise, if the road is clear, the vehicle can safely reach a high speed.
I’m wondering how they recharge the vehicles. There is no description about recharging functions along the route or at stations.
Probably, you wonder why I bring this topic up. If you look at the buses of Seoul, they look a little bit worn out. I don’t want even mention the buses in the cities around Seoul. I think that Seoul may replace their buses with this bimodal trams. Seoul seems to interested in operating the bimodal trams between Seoul and the cities in the metropolitan area like a type of extremely modern BRT.